Monday Matters (March 30, 2020)

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The wound is the place where the Light enters in.

-Rumi

There is a crack in everything God has made.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.

-Leonard Cohen

To be a monk is to have time to practice for your transformation and healing. And after that to help with the transformation and healing of other people.

-Thich Nhat Hanh

Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. 

-Matthew 10:1

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

-Revelation 22

Healing Prayer

I don’t know if you have this experience, but as someone who has been hanging around the church for a while, I’m continually surprised with the ways that words I’ve said over and over, hymn texts I’ve sung a million times, familiar passages of scripture come to life, striking me as if I’ve never heard them before. I confess (spiritual shallowness alert) that it can become routine. I can get bored or distracted. My mind can wander in worship. And then a phrase will come to life and grab my attention. I take that to be the enlivening work of the Holy Spirit, breathing new insight into old forms, maybe even resurrecting them.

Some of you know that in response to the current health crisis, and my own self-quarantining, I’m leading online Morning Prayer on weekday mornings (You’re welcome to join us weekdays on St. James’ Parish, Wilmington Facebook page.) It’s been a hugely helpful spiritual exercise for me this Lent. Though I can’t see or hear those on the call, I sense their prayers and presence, as we spend time each morning praying for healing in this unprecedented season.

I’ve said Morning Prayer maybe six bazillion times…not a boast, just an observation…but what has struck me anew since we started this discipline is the couplet from the suffrages (where officiant and people pray responsively). It’s taken from Psalm 67: Let your ways be known on earth, your saving health among all nations. As the global maps on TV show us contending with this crisis in almost every region, we are praying each morning for God’s saving health among all nations.

Reflect with me on those words. What do we mean by God’s saving health? The phrase is redundant. Salvation is about healing. It is about being made whole. It is the work God does. It is the work Jesus came to do. It is the work passed on to the church.

And maybe that healing work is a way to describe everything the church is called to do, healing of body, mind, spirit, memory, relationship. Healing as peacemaking. Healing as the work of social justice. Healing as priorities set forth by our Presiding Bishop, himself a healer, calling us to racial reconciliation, creation care and proclamation of good news.

It’s mysterious work for sure, for all kinds of reasons. For starters, healing is not the same as cure. Why are some fervent prayers apparently answered and others are not? That goes on my list of questions for the pearly gates. Then there’s the mystery of why this kind of suffering is allowed at all. And all of it is made more complicated by bad theology, those crazy, craven corners of Christendom which regard this crisis as God’s judgment, or seeks to blame this crisis on others, foreigners or people with different political or social points of view or whatever serves their purposes.

We live with the questions, seeing through a glass darkly as St. Paul noted. In the meanwhile, we’re asked to think about how we might be healers this week, in these unusual days in which we live. It’s a ministry accessible to everyone, because everyone can pray, even if it’s the eloquent one-word prayer: help! We pray for God’s saving health to be known among all nations. And we allow our prayer to turn into action. Support for hospital workers. Donations to fund meals for school kids. Phone calls to those who are anxious or alone. Agitating advocacy to make sure our leaders are on their game as healers.

Carry with you today these questions posed by wounded healer, Henri Nouwen: “Did I offer peace today? Did I bring a smile to someone’s face? Did I say words of healing? Did I let go of my anger and resentment? Did I forgive? Did I love?These are the real questions. I must trust that the little bit of love that I sow now will bear many fruits, here in this world and the life to come.”

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory.

Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org

 

Monday Matters (March 23, 2020)

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Dear People of God:

The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy  Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of  notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.

-From the liturgy for Ash Wednesday page 264 in the Book of Common Prayer

Invitation to Lent

My wife sometimes tells me I would have made a good monk. I don’t know if that’s compliment or complaint. I am finding that social distancing is not as challenging for me as it might be for some of my more extroverted colleagues. It does strike me as strangely appropriate that we contend with all of this in the season of Lent. So here we are. Here’s what we’ve been given. So the persistent faith question: What will we do with what we’ve been given?

The season of Lent has specific intentions, articulated in the liturgy for Ash Wednesday. The officiant invites people to the observance of a holy Lent (included above). I’ve been thinking about those intentions, reflecting on how we respond to them in this particular, peculiar, perilous season:

Self-examination: Unsettling global events have a way of driving self-examination. Add to that isolation and we have time and space to reflect on our own lives. What do we value? What is important? Where are we giving our hearts? We see too many examples of the unexamined life. Case in point, from the shores of Florida as hordes of revelers flocked to the beach. One told a journalist: “If I get Corona, I get Corona. At the end of the day, I’m not gonna let it stop me from partying.” I don’t mean to pick on the kid. I just wonder if he holds up any kind of mirror for me.

Repentance: One of the challenges of school closings is that we have millions of kids who won’t have meals otherwise. How did that happen in a country of such prosperity? This is just one example of the need for a collective change of direction, which is what repentance is all about. Where else do we hear the call to repentance, as a community and as individuals? How can we turn from a life focused on self and move in the direction of a life focused on others?

Prayer: As I said last week, in times like this, prayer should be first response, not last resort. A friend told me that her pastor once said from the pulpit that he had gone through a personal crisis and had tried everything. Nothing worked. So he decided to pray about it. A last resort, perhaps a rare moment of candor from clergy, the admission that in many ways, for much of the time, we are functional atheists. What would it mean to recognize God’s presence in the thick of this current mess? What would it mean to talk with God about that, a lot? To draw on strength beyond ourselves, the kind of help we now need? To pray without ceasing, as St. Paul advises.

Fasting: In Lent, that can mean going without food, booze, sweets. Maybe some fasts will be presented to us without our choosing. We may find that some things we considered to be necessities of life suddenly aren’t so important. The New Yorker cartoon shows the guy forced to work at home. Caption: It’s true. All those meetings could have just been emails!

Self-denial: Self-quarantine is just one example. It’s no fun, especially for those non-monks among us. But if ever there was a time to get ourselves out of the way and focus on others, focus on the greater good, this might be it. What might we give up for the sake of others? How might we orient our energies towards workers who lost their jobs? What creative, compassionate responses can we offer for people who work in hospitality industries? What can we do for folks under the radar: elderly living alone, homeless under the bridge, parents losing sleep in the middle of the night over unpaid bills, health workers lacking equipment they need? The list goes on.

Reading and meditating on God’s holy Word: You don’t have to dig deep to find biblical stories that parallel our current crisis. I don’t simply mean the various plagues visited on biblical peoples. I think of the oppression of the Pharaohs, the exodus through the wilderness, exile from homeland, the way of the cross, the persecution of the early church. The psalms are filled with stories of folks who feel like God has abandoned them. In other words, what we experience has been experienced before, in varied form. And God was present in it all.

Can you see how the intentions of the Lenten season correspond to this moment? As grim as it may seem, as cloudy the future, as people of faith, we can withstand when we can’t understand. We can proclaim when we can’t explain. And here’s what we proclaim this Monday morning: People of faith have made the journey through this kind of thing before. They came to realize, as we will, that they were not left alone in that journey. They discovered that dead ends can indeed become thresholds. And as Julian of Norwich said, as her ministry unfolded in the midst of plague, they knew that in the end, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory.

Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org

 

Monday Matters (March 16, 2020)

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Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God

Here we receive an invaluable practical lesson in the art of prayer, and prayer, be it remembered, is our only means of returning to our communion with God.

The great essential for success in prayer…is that we first attain some degree of peace of mind. This true, interior soul-peace was known to the mystics as serenity, and they are never tired of telling us that serenity is the grand passport to the Presence of God.

It is serenity, that fundamental tranquility of the soul, that Jesus refers to by the word “peace”, the peace that passes all human understanding. The peacemakers spoken of in this Beatitude are those who make or bring about this true peace or serenity in their own souls, for it is they who surmount limitation and become actually and not merely  potentially the children of god.

As long as there is fear, or resentment, or any trouble in your heart, that is to say, as long as you lack serenity, or peace, it is not possible for you to attain very much.

Excerpts from Emmet Fox’ book THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT

Blessed are the peacemakers

Jesus said: Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled. And do not let them be afraid. (John 14:27)

In 1993, Yasir Arafat, Palestinian leader and Yitzhak Rabin, leader of Israel, met on the White House lawn to announce a peace agreement. Here’s what I remember: Mr. Rabin looked pained in the process. He noted that you don’t make peace with friends. You make peace with your enemies, with those who oppose you, maybe those who hate you. Peacemaking is work. Hard work. It ultimately cost Mr. Rabin his life.

There are lots of ways to think about peacemaking. It’s something to consider in this extraordinary season, with our focus on health issues. How will do the hard work of peacemaking? What will it take to manage the understandable anxiety that has a grip on us? How do we move to peace of mind?  Will that be hard to do? Does our faith have anything to say in this moment?

I’m mindful of all the places in scripture where we’re told to live free of anxiety and worry. Is that naïve? Pie in the sky? Bobby McFerrin singing “Don’t worry. Be happy”? Again and again, the biblical record points to peace of mind in the most anxiety producing situations. In the book of Isaiah (26:3) we read: You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you. In the book of Lamentations (3:22-24), the prophet Jeremiah makes this claim: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,”therefore I will hope in him.” These prophets do the hard work of peacemaking, issuing a call to faith when exile loomed large, and anxiety was a most reasonable response.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” He cites the birds of the air and lilies of the field as models of life free of anxiety. This preached by a man who knew his journey headed for the cross, in a gospel written at the end of the first century after Jerusalem had been destroyed and the church experienced persecution.

In his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul writes: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” This was not written from the splendor of fancy rectory or academic ivory tower but from a prison cell.  Imagine what such a place was like in the first century? What would it take to be a peacemaker in those circumstances, to speak of rejoicing and gratitude and not worrying?

This week, how can we be peacemakers, specifically making peace in the face of our own anxiety and the anxiety surrounding us? Is such a thing even possible? Like peacemaking between Rabin and Arafat, it will take work. It’s counter-intuitive, to put it mildly. It doesn’t mean we ignore or minimize the health crisis. It’s real. It’s big. Perhaps unprecedented. It doesn’t mean it will be easy or free of pain.

It does mean that the witness of scripture is that people discover the peace of God in the middle of the storm (and we’re in one now). That takes faith, trust, confidence that while we may not know what the future holds, we know the one who holds the future.

I’ve been thinking of the line of the hymn: “O what peace we often forfeit, o what needless pain we bear, all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.” For people of faith, this is time to claim the power of prayer, not as last resort, but as first response. We are called to engage in healing prayer, to pray for our leaders, to pray for those who care for those who are sick. Our prayers are not withdrawal from the problem. They are not denial. They indicate the intention, the hard work of trust.

Then we allow our prayers to guide our action in the world: reaching out to the most vulnerable and fearful, helping those facing hardship because of changes in their work situation. Maybe in your social distancing you can send a note each day to someone who is alone, or reach out by phone or Facetime or email or text. Maybe you can support (directly or through your representatives in government) those in need, for instance, students who depend on schools for meals, workers who scramble for child-care.

It may be hard to be a peacemaker in this moment, to overcome anxiety with trust in God. In many ways, it’s a leap of faith. And that’s the work before us this week. Thank God we’re not alone in this.

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory.

Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org

 

Monday Matters (March 9, 2020)

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And as John the Baptist watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day.

-John 1:36-39

For those who feel their lives are a grave disappointment to God, it requires enormous trust and reckless, raging confidence to accept that the love of Jesus Christ knows no shadow of alteration or change. When Jesus said, “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy burdened,” he assumed we would grow weary, discouraged, and disheartened along the way. These words are a touching testimony to the genuine humanness of Jesus. He had no romantic notion of the cost of discipleship. He knew that following him was as unsentimental as duty, as demanding as love.

-Brennan Manning

To be a disciple

Scott Gunn, fearless and creative leader of Forward Movement, speaks often about the mission of the organization he leads. He knows that many people think of it as a publishing business. Others think of it as a pamphlet business. Others think of it as that marvelous exercise known as Lent Madness, a particular, perhaps peculiar (dare I say screwball) invention of Scott and his buddy, Tim Schenck, to teach us more about saints. I suspect all of the above are true.

But at heart, Scott says that Forward Movement is a discipleship business. As we make our way through the season of Lent, I’m mindful that perhaps that is the business not only of Forward Movement but of the whole church in its varied expressions, always and everywhere addressing these questions: What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus? How do we become such? Are we actually interested in having that happen, or is at all just a little too religious?

As I say, this Lenten season has given me ample opportunity to think about all this. Our church in small group is reading a beautiful (and succinct) book by former Archbishop Rowan Williams. I commend it to you. He’s a disciple of significant brain power. This simple book opens with the following description of disciples. Being a disciple means two things:

  1. That what we do, how we think, speak and act is open to Christ
  2. As church, that we continue to be a learning community, growing in depth of love of God and neighbor

An interesting summation. I wonder how it strikes you. It means, first of all, in all of life, being open to Christ. I see that openness in the ways Jesus called his disciples. This past weekend, our youth met in retreat around the theme of the three words Jesus said to would-be disciples when they expressed curiosity. He said: “Come and see.” This old ad guy can only think of the ancient commercial with this punch line: “Try it. You’ll like it.”

That is the kind of openness we read about yesterday at church when Nicodemus comes to Jesus (John 3) with his own questions about the spiritual life. Nicodemus wonders how someone like him, who has been around the block a few times, can possibly be born again. He begins a journey that ultimately led him to one of the most precious and holy acts of devotion in the Bible (John 20). He and Joseph of Arimathea take the broken body of Jesus off the cross and place it in the tomb (ready for resurrection), a courageous act of worship, marked by bravery and love, which after all is what courage is all about.

In Mark’s gospel in the daily lectionary, we’ve been reading about the call of Jesus to his disciples. It’s even more succinct than “Come and see.” He simply says “Follow me.” Quite remarkably, fishermen and tax collectors do it, instantly changing course, launching a journey marked by openness in everything they did to Christ.  So this Monday morning in Lent, take a spiritual selfie and note the degree to which you are open to Christ in your life. What are the obstacles to that happening?

And then think about that second dimension of discipleship, being part of a learning community, knowing that the word disciple relates to being a student or a learner. Wherever we are in the journey, there is always more for us to come to understand. The mysteries of God’s ways in the world know no limits in depth or breadth. God’s love extends beyond our understanding or imagination, for sure. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn more about it. Use this season, use your church as a place to take the next steps of discovery as you hear Jesus say to you this morning: “Come and see,” as he gets right in your face and lovingly says: “Follow me.”

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory.

Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org

 

Monday Matters (March 2, 2020)

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He divided the sea and let them pass through it, and made the waters stand like a heap.

In the daytime he led them with a cloud and all night long with a fiery light.
He split rocks open in the wilderness, and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep.

He made streams come out of the rock, and caused waters to flow down like rivers.

Yet they sinned still more against him, rebelling against the Most High in the desert.
They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved.
They spoke against God, saying, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness?”

-Psalm 78:13-19

The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness

-John Muir

To be commanded to love God at all, let alone in the wilderness, is like being commanded to be well when we are sick, to sing for joy when we are dying of thirst, to run when our legs are broken.

But this is the first and great commandment nonetheless. Even in the wilderness, especially in the wilderness – you shall love him.

-Frederick Buechner

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

-Thomas Merton

Can God set a table in the wilderness?

It’s one of the persistent images in scripture. Moses spends 40 years in the wilderness before he is called to liberate the children of Israel from Pharaoh’s oppression. Once delivered, after marching through the Red Sea, the children of Israel wander for 40 years in the wilderness, tracing a rather circuitous route. Israel in exile sought a path home through the wilderness, a trackless waste with no cell phone or GPS.

Episcopal Church Memes
(Cartoon by Dan Reynolds)

The voice of John the Baptist was heard crying in the wilderness. And immediately after his dramatic baptism replete with heavens opening, doves descending and divine voices booming, Jesus is driven in the wilderness by the Spirit where he is tested by the devil, as we read yesterday in church. The season of Lent, now underway, is compared to several of these stories, a time spent in the wilderness, wandering and all the while wondering in the language of Psalm 78: Can God set a table in the wilderness? Good question.

The fact is, we don’t need the Bible to tell us about wilderness experience. I suspect we all know something about it, even those who are not exactly outdoorsy types. Some of my wilderness moments came in densely populated urban settings, lots of people around but no one around.

Wilderness can come when we enter uncharted territory. Wilderness can come when we contend with isolation. Wilderness can come with all kinds of experience of deprivation. Wilderness can come in response to a crisis of health or finances or employment or relationships or meaning. Wilderness can come with the sense of abandonment that accompanies grief. Just a few examples, illustrating wisdom I’ve shared before from one of my mentors who told his congregation: Suffering is the promise life always keeps. We’re all way too familiar with wilderness.

The church, again, presents Lent as a journey through the wilderness, a time marked by challenge. At the same time, for Moses it was the place where he received his call via a conversation with a burning bush. It was the place where the children of Israel were painstakingly formed as a nation. It provided a pathway home for a people in exile. It was the venue for John the Baptist to prepare the way of the Messiah. And it launched Jesus in his public ministry.  So the answer, sometimes hard to believe, is that God can indeed set a table in the wilderness. In other words, it is a place from which something new can emerge.

Think of a time when you have felt like you were in the wilderness. What was that like? What brought you through? What did you learn?

The fact that we make our way through this season of Lent together means that on some level, we are all experiencing wilderness. As you navigate this journey, make it more than a season to just feel deprived, to feel more miserable-than-thou. See what God might have to teach you in this time. Ask for that kind of teaching. Put yourself in a place to hear that teaching. Maybe some quiet time each day. Maybe some reflection from people you think have wisdom. Maybe some act of kindness, accompanying someone else on their wilderness journey.

The children of Israel discovered that God could indeed set a table in the wilderness. Perhaps we can discover that too this week.

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory.

Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org

Monday Matters (February 24, 2020)

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Psalm 51

1     Have mercy on me, O God, according to your
loving-kindness; *
in your great compassion blot out my offenses.

  2     Wash me through and through from my wickedness *
and cleanse me from my sin.

  2     For I know my transgressions, *
and my sin is ever before me.

  4     Against you only have I sinned *
and done what is evil in your sight.

  5     And so you are justified when you speak *
and upright in your judgment

  6     Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, *
a sinner from my mother’s womb.

  7     For behold, you look for truth deep within me, *
and will make me understand wisdom secretly.

  8     Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; *
wash me, and I shall be clean indeed.

  9     Make me hear of joy and gladness, *
that the body you have broken may rejoice.

10     Hide your face from my sins *
and blot out all my iniquities.

11     Create in me a clean heart, O God, *
and renew a right spirit within me.

12     Cast me not away from your presence *
and take not your holy Spirit from me.

13     Give me the joy of your saving help again *
and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.

Lent: A matter of the heart

Copyright © 2020 Church Pension Group Services Corporation

Lent is upon us. How did that happen? Okay, I may be a church geek, but I spent time over the past few days looking at the liturgy for Ash Wednesday, getting ready for the 40 days. Have a look (p. 264 in the Book of Common Prayer). There’s a lot in there to serve as guide for the upcoming season, and for all of life.

There’s an opening invitation to Lent which helps us think about what we might think about for the next 40 days: self-examination, repentance, prayer, fasting, scripture engagement. There are scriptures that describe the kind of religious observance God seems to find interesting. (Hint: It has a lot to do with helping those in need.) And there’s the challenge put forth by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. He said: Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Lent asks us to think about what we treasure, where we give our heart, mindful of the desert father who said: Do not give your heart to that which does not satisfy your heart.

No doubt, there’s a complexity to the season. It’s a lot more than simply an effort to be more miserable than thou. It does indeed call us to repentance, to acknowledge ways we’ve messed up. We are all familiar with these. At the same time, the season celebrates new life. The word Lent I’m told has some kind of connection to an ancient word for Spring. It’s a season for spiritual growth. It’s a season not only of challenge but formation. So in the course of the Ash Wednesday liturgy, after ashes have been administered, the congregation turns to Psalm 51, a psalm which captures the many dimensions of the season of Lent. (see above) Here’s what struck me about that psalm over the past few days.

It has everything to do with the heart. The psalmist recognizes the way he has messed up. Tradition has it that the psalm reflects the regret of David in the wake of his murderous, adulterous, duplicitous interactions. Some hero of the faith! The psalmist understands that God knows all about that. On some level, the psalmist believes that God’s grace is sufficient to rise above all that.

The psalmist asks:  Create in me a clean heart and renew a right spirit within me. It’s a reminder, as springtime approaches, of one of the reasons for the season: new life. Wherever we’ve been, whatever we’ve done, whatever secrets we harbor, whatever shame we harbor, needless pain we bear, peace we often forfeit can be brought to this season. It’s a chance for a new start.

The biblical record indicates that it’s never too late to begin again. Abraham and Sarah, who practiced their own deceptions, didn’t start a family until they were in their 90’s. Jacob, chief biblical creep who swindled his brother and tricked his blind father, became father of the twelve tribes of Israel. Moses became a leader after 40 years in exile, prompted by his own murder of an Egyptian. And then there’s David, who despite the mess he’d made, was regarded as the greatest king of Israel.

As Lent begins, do a spiritual check-up on your heart. How is it doing? Where are you giving your heart? Do you need to begin again? That’s God’s work, thank God. And because it’s God’s work, that new heart is always a possibility. Always. Let that new heart, that new start be your prayer for this holy season. And take to heart the final words of the psalm, that at the end of it all, there is the promise of joy, the product of God’s bountiful spirit.

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

RenewalWorks for Me is a wonderful resource for a spiritual check-up and guided practices to deepen your faith. Try it as your Lenten practice!

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory.

Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org

Monday Matters (February 17, 2020)

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Some wisdom from Abraham Lincoln:

I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had no where else to go. My own wisdom and that of all about me seemed insufficient for that day.

America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.

My concern is not whether God is on our side, my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.

Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.

There are no bad pictures, that just how your face looks sometimes.

I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.

I can see how it might be possible for a man to look down upon the earth and be an atheist, but I cannot conceive how a man could look up into the heavens and say there is no God.

No man is poor who has a Godly mother.

I laugh because I must not cry, that is all, that is all.

What would Abraham Lincoln tweet?

We lived in Washington, DC, for a few years when our children were young. During that time, I discovered the Lincoln Memorial, which I came to regard as a thin place (i.e., distance between heaven and earth is thin), a holy place. I wanted to share it with my kids, so I took my young son there. We had to park far away. I had to carry him part of the way. Lots of steps. When we got to the top of the stairs, let’s just say he was not particularly impressed.

He was not quite old enough to take in what moved me so deeply. Not only the history of those steps. In the walls of the memorial are etched the words of Lincoln’s second inaugural address, a succinct speech offered in the middle of the war between the states. The speech reveals a person of faith, a person who knew his Bible, a humble leader, a man of prayer trying to figure out what faith meant in a time of division, when religion was used to justify diametrically opposed points of view. Sound familiar?

On this President’s Day, I invite you to spend a few minutes with this remarkable address. Google the whole thing. And since I have the microphone, let me share a few choice passages:

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other…The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nation.

I wonder what Abraham Lincoln would have to say today? This Monday, imagine our world, our nation, our election process, our workplaces, our homes, our schools, our churches, our hearts as places bearing malice toward none and charity for all. Imagine public discourse that reflects this spirit. We can dream, can’t we? After all, others have dreamed on those Lincoln Memorial steps.

We may feel we have no impact on divisions brought by politicians or pundits or preachers. At times, all I feel we can do is offer the Serenity Prayer, and change what we can for a more perfect union, reflecting our better angels. And we can begin with our own hearts, and with those who cross our paths, and with those we are called to serve. We can ask for the grace to interact with malice toward none and charity for all, so that brokenness can be healed. That would be a great way to observe this holiday.

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

Resolving to deepen your spiritual life in 2020?

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory.

Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org

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Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that thou bids me come to thee,
O Lamb of God, I come!

Just as I am – though tossed about
With many a conflict, many a doubt,
Fightings and fears within, without,
O Lamb of God, I come!

Just as I am – poor, wretched, blind;
Sight, riches, healing of the mind,
Yea, all I need in Thee to find, O Lamb of God, I come!

Just as I am – Thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
Because Thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come!

Just as I am – Thy love unknown
Has broken every barrier down;
Now to be Thine, yea, Thine alone,
O Lamb of God, I come!

Just as I am – of that free love
The breadth, length, depth and height to prove,
Here for a season, then above, O Lamb of God, I come!

What does God want from us, part II?

I want to continue to consider the question posed last week: What does God ask of us?

In recent days, our Prayer Book has led us in daily readings to the book of Genesis and the story of Abraham. He’s one of my favorites, flawed in profound ways, yet compelling because scripture tells us that he heard God’s call and left his comfort zone, not knowing where he was going. Have you ever had that experience?

Among the many stories about Abraham, last week we read the chilling account of God’s request for Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. We read that story on Good Friday each year. I’m not sure what to make of it. Best spin I can put on it is that it was God’s dramatic way of saying that child sacrifice was not to be practiced anymore. I’ll let more learned folks figure out its meaning.

But last week, as I read that story in Genesis 22, with all its complications, I was struck with the repetition of the phrase: Here I am. The story begins as God calls to Abraham. Abraham says: Here I am. Later on, Isaac, Abraham’s son, addresses his father, asking how this will all work out. Abraham responds: Here I am. At the pivotal moment, God intervenes to stop the sacrifice. Hearing God’s voice, Abraham answers: Here I am.

It’s not the only time in the Bible that the phrase comes up. Samuel gets repeated calls from God, not sure whose voice he’s really hearing. In response, Samuel says: Speak Lord, your servant is listening, a variation on the phrase: Here I am. Isaiah, the prophet is called by God, and says: Here I am, a person of unclean lips. Mary receives perhaps the most significant call in all of scripture. As Gabriel announces the advent of the Christ child, Mary says: Here am I. The servant of the Lord.

So what’s behind that persistent phrase? What does God ask of us? Perhaps all that God wants is for us to say I’m here.

Here I am. It says take me as I am. What you see is what you get. It’s like the old Baptist hymn: Just as I am. Implicit in those three words? The profound theological claim that we don’t have to prove ourselves or earn God’s love or reach a certain level of religiosity or holiness for God to love us and put us to work. Said another way, God meets us where we are.

Here I am. It says I am living in the moment. Have I mentioned that my wife has me doing yoga? The idea of stepping on the mat has come to mean a lot to this person who can obsess about mistakes of the past (mine and others) and can battle anxiety about the future. Recent encounters with mortality make me aware that life is indeed short and we do not have too much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us. It’s a call to live in the moment.

Here I am. It says I am open to what God is calling me to do. I may, like Abraham, not know what that entails or where it’s headed. I may, like Mary, have no idea how any of this can work. I may, like Isaiah, feel ill equipped. But on some level, it’s about saying yes to God, regardless of where we’ve been or what we’ve done or how adequate we feel.

There’s a lot in those three words.

Which brings me to Moses. He’d been out in the desert for 40 years, watching sheep, a demotion from life as prince of Egypt. Minding his own business, Moses turned aside to check out a bush that seemed to be burning but was not consumed.  Weird. Hold on. It gets weirder. God speaks out of that bush. On hearing the voice, Moses says: Here I am. God tells Moses about the job before him: Go face down Pharaoh. Moses then says: Who am I? Who am I to do this job? God’s answer: I will be with you.

As you find a way to say: Here I am, to the Holy One, maybe today or this week, or some time in days ahead, take comfort from the promise that wherever that response leads, you won’t go it alone.

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham
jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

Resolving to deepen your spiritual life in 2020?

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory.

Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org

Monday Matters (February 3, 2020)

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If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and all that is in it is mine.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?
Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving and pay your vows to the Most High.

-Psalm 50:12-14

I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice and call on the name of the Lord.
I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people,

-Psalm 116:17-18

Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind.
And let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices, and tell of his deeds with songs of joy.

-Psalm 107:21, 22

We celebrate the memorial of our redemption, O Father, in this sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. Recalling his death, resurrection and ascension, we offer you these gifts.

-from Eucharistic Prayer A in the Book of Common Prayer

What does God want from us?

That question gets asked in a variety of ways in the Bible, and in life. What does the Lord require of you? (Micah 6:8) What must I do to inherit eternal life? (Matthew 19:16) What must I do to be saved? (Acts 16:30)  One friend offered this variation of the question with a bumper sticker on his bulletin board: How much sinning can I do and still go to heaven? One way or another, we all may wonder what’s expected of us.

There are several places in the psalms where it seems that what God wants from us is referred to as a sacrifice of thanksgiving. Check out a few examples included above. I ran across that phrase last week. I’ve been puzzling about those two words put together.

I get the thanksgiving piece. It’s a growth opportunity for me, to deepen in gratitude. I try to be intentional about it, whether it’s giving thanks for 5 things a day or 100. I know that such a frame of mind is a good way to live. I’m working on living into that knowledge. Blessings surround us. When we recognize them as gifts, we are led in healthy pathways.

But in what sense is thanksgiving a sacrifice? What comes to mind when you think of sacrifice? Is it about offering? Is it about suffering or deprivation? Is it putting your agenda on back burner? Is it putting something to death? It can easily shift into teeth-gritting Christianity, that un-attractive way of being that says: “Look, O Lord, at all that I have done for you! Look at how much better I am than the rest of the losers around me! How lucky you are to have me on the team!”

When I think of thanksgiving as sacrifice, I wonder if it’s a matter of surrendering the notion that it’s all up to us. Maybe the sacrifice is a recognition that we are who we are because of grace, lest anyone should boast. Maybe the sacrifice of thanksgiving is giving God praise (a.k.a., credit), letting go of the illusion that we merit the goodness we’ve received, by virtue of our virtue, as if it’s a reflection on our particular magnificence. (Such an attitude is not only unattractive. It also separates us from each other.) My wife and spiritual advisor reminds me that ego is really an acronym: edging God out. When we sacrifice the notion that God owes us something, as tempting as that may be, when we simply give thanks, maybe that’s what God wants from us.

Here’s another way to think about. (In case you haven’t figured it out by now, I haven’t figured this out.) Maybe it’s biblical irony, noting that thanksgiving is anything but sacrifice. That’s just another way of saying that all is grace. Maybe a framework that looks at all of life with thankful heart puts to death the idea of sacrifice. God has no interest in our efforts to be more miserable than thou. Jesus came to break that news to us.  God is about bringing things to life, not putting things to death.

One of the places that the language of sacrifice of thanksgiving emerges is in the eucharist, in the prayer we say over bread and wine. When we come to worship, when we come to remember what God has done for us, that is the offering God desires. That memory portion of the eucharistic prayer has a technical, Greek name: anamnesis. Not amnesia. Not forgetting. Maybe all God wants from us is to not forget that we have been blessed and are being blessed and will ultimately be blessed forever and that there will be enough blessings to share them with others.

If we can live with that sense of blessing, offering that sacrifice of thanksgiving, we are free to experience all that God has intended for us from the time of creation when God looked at the creation of humankind and said: This is all very good.

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

Resolving to deepen your spiritual life in 2020?

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory.

Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org

Monday Matters (January 27, 2020)

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A prayer from the third chapter of Ephesians 

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

 

Galatians 5:22-23: The fruits of the Spirit

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things

Rooted and Restless

The conference I attended in Atlanta last week was awesome. It made me (and others) think about what it means to be rooted, specifically rooted in Jesus. I was reminded of my arrival at my church in Chicago in 2004, greeted with the description of that parish as rooted and restless. I liked that. When I heard the description, I assumed that the rooted and restless was a 50/50 split. Not exactly the case. I found the church to be way more rooted than restless, which I mention because the same is true of many congregations, true of many people.

Since that time, I’ve come to realize that there are many ways to be rooted. Some are great. Others, not so much. Rooted in tradition. Rooted in dogma. Rooted in conflict. Rooted in correctness. Rooted in ideology or political point of view. Rooted in the ways things have always been done. Rooted in the culture of the community. Rooted in financial security. Sometimes, such rootedness might make us wish for uprootedness.

Thanks be to God, the Atlanta conference charted another way. It spoke of being rooted in Jesus. Think with me this morning about what that means.

In a workshop I led, I confessed that my latest favorite book of the Bible is the letter to the Ephesians. It paints a vision of church as miracle, God’s work of grace, as opportunity for the love of God to shine in the world. Is that your impression of your local church? If not, we can dream, can’t we?

In the third chapter of Ephesians, there’s a beautiful prayer for the church. I’ve printed that prayer in the column on the left. I am particularly interested in the way it speaks of the hope that the community can be rooted and grounded in love. That is the way that the community will grow, and live into its God-given restlessness. What might it mean to be so rooted and grounded in love? It has everything to do with Jesus.

It means first that all we are, all we do, all the fruit we bear, all the shade we offer wearied travelers, all the hospitality we offer to the birds of the air, finds grace at the base. Mr. Shyness, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry tells us that if it isn’t about love, it isn’t about God. We find our foundation in the love of God from which we can never be separated, love that knows no limit, love that meets us where we are, love that reaches out with intention to those most hurt by life, love with the power to transform, love that frees us from having to prove ourselves (Hallelujah!). We’ve got that love. Nothing can take it away. So I’m wondering: How can I put my roots down deeper into that well of love? How might you do that today?

It also means that as we know that love, we are called to show that love. It’s the kind of tree we are. Jim Forbes told us in seminary that we need to focus on the fruits as well as the roots, to see what fruits of the spirit emerge from rootedness in love. (See verse about fruits of the Spirit in the column on the left.) Those fruits emerge naturally, effortlessly out of the strength drawn from roots, out of our identity as beloved children of God.

All of which makes me ask a question I often ask parishioners: What is nourishing you these days? What sources of strength can you draw on, can you rely on in your life? Where are you rooted? Various kinds of rootedness can sustain for a while, but I don’t know that they go the distance. For me, the hope for my own spiritual journey, and the hope for our communities of faith, is to be rooted in Jesus, by which we mean rooted in grace and compassion and forgiveness, following his teaching of loving kindness, recognizing how those gifts have come to us and sharing them wherever we can.

-Jay Sidebotham

The Gospel Of John | Epiphany 2020

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Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

Resolving to deepen your spiritual life in 2020?

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory.

Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org